Darwin Awards “Honor” Ridiculous Deaths

Funeral Industry News August 5, 2020
Darwin Awards Pool
Diana Ionescu

Diana is a writer and urbanist based in Los Angeles. Her interests include modern grief rituals, innovative disposition methods, and navigating death and mourning in an increasingly secular society.

Darwin Awards “Honor” Ridiculous Deaths

We all have that one intrepid—to put it kindly—friend who we look at and think, “how are you still alive?” The Darwin Awards, first appearing as a concept in mid-80s online Usenet groups and launched as its own project in 1993, is a tongue-in-cheek tribute to those brave and misguided souls who end up losing their lives due to woefully poor decision-making. 

Named for the father of evolutionary theory, the Awards seek out unusual deaths that happened entirely due to the obstinacy, hubris, and, most importantly, sheer stupidity of the deceased. According to the creator, the award winners benefit the human species by “significantly improv[ing] the gene pool by eliminating themselves from the human race in an obviously stupid way.” In this sense, the Darwin winners improve the long-term survival chances of our species by removing the least fit elements. Although this is a slight corruption of Darwin’s theory(“fittest” by his definition refers to “most adaptable,” not strongest or smartest), the irreverent awards illustrate the myriad idiotic ways that humans put themselves in sticky, and sometimes deadly, situations.

Silly awards with serious rules

To win a Darwin Award, a nominee must meet a few conditions: 

  • The nominee’s feat must render them dead or sterile(hence preserving the gene pool).
  • The act must be excessively foolish, outrageous, and/or sensational. Mundane or common stupid deaths(smoking in bed, climbing into zoo cages) don’t count. Originality matters!
  • The person must only harm themselves. Killing innocent bystanders is an automatic disqualifier. The Darwin Awards pokes fun at unfortunately mindless behavior, but doesn’t support hurting others in the process.
  • The person must be of sound judgment and, although there’s no 18+ rule, recipients must be of legal driving age in their country.
  • The event must be true. Although many of the chain emails claiming lists of Darwin Awards contain exaggerated stories or urban legends, Northcutt does her best to verify each story published on the official Darwin Awards website for veracity.

Not all stupid deaths qualify

In keeping with the second rule, not all deaths caused by idiocy qualify for a Darwin Award. Anything too common, such as urinating on an electrical wire, falling while posing on a precipice, or carbon monoxide poisoning, gets eliminated from the running. The “uncommon excellence” rule weeds out most nominees, calling for a high level of idiocy and an “astounding lack of judgment” to qualify.

Northcutt explains the originality requirement this way: Russian Roulette—too common, doesn’t qualify. Russian roulette with land mines—now you’re talking Darwin-level creativity. Though some of these examples may not sound like “common” deaths, you’d be surprised at how many people die from heating aerosol cans in the oven, knowingly hanging out in the path of an oncoming train, or auto-erotic deaths(the website excludes “most” auto-erotic deaths—so with a little luck and creativity, you might still have a chance in this category). 

From message boards to bookshelves

After their beginning on internet message boards, the Awards became a popular internet phenomenon. They spawned a website and several books compiled by Wendy Northcutt. Northcutt, a neurobiologist, started collecting stories for the website in 1993. She sees them as instructive, cautionary tales that may teach others to check their ego and think before they(literally) leap. She calls the award-winning deaths “examples of trial and error that vividly illustrate evolution in all its selective glory.”

“From the sublimely ironic to the pathetically stupid,” here are some examples of the most outrageous confirmed Darwin Award winners:

  • In 2003, an Australian man removed himself from the gene pool by attempting to launch a firecracker from his rectum. He survived, but he won’t be reproducing—making him eligible for a Darwin.
  • Garry Hoy, a Toronto lawyer, fell to his death when attempting to demonstrate the “unbreakable” window in his 24th-floor office. He’d performed the stunt successfully before. However, on this particular attempt in 1993, the window frame gave way, plunging him to his death.
  • Two Texas men died while attempting to jump a pontoon swing bridge in their car. The vehicle plunged into Louisiana’s Black Bayou when the two men drove across the open bridge. They were hoping to catch enough air to reach the other side.
  • A bungee jumper fell to his death when he tied together several store-bought bungee cords and jumped from a railroad trestle.

Some decry the Darwins for insensitivity

The project has critics, too. Some argue that the Awards are an insensitive response to the death of any person, regardless of the circumstances. Laughing at death, some argue, only serves to erode empathy and reduce individual deaths to funny anecdotes. To Northcutt, though, the purpose of the awards is to “make us chuckle in rueful recognition of human folly.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is dividing opinions over mask-wearing and young people are hosting “COVID parties.” It stands to reason 2020 promises to give us more Darwin Award winners than usual. The Awards, Northcutt writes, are “a rusty chromosome award for those who douse the gene pool with chlorine.”